Marilyn Mosby: I Will Continue to Challenge the ‘Status Quo’
In an exclusive interview with Baltimore’s State’s Attorney and the first in our series focusing on women of influence, Mosby says the nation’s criminal justice system still needs major reform – Story by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
I’ve begun a series on women in Baltimore, women whose contributions both great and small have influenced the destiny of Baltimore City, and its citizens. I was very fortunate to have my first interview with City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby. She was thrust into the national spotlight when she indicted six officers with the in custody death of Freddie Gray. She helped calm a city in pain, and give its residents hope for justice.
Here to discuss the city’s top prosecutor is investigative reporter, Stephen Janis. Stephen, can you give us a little bit of background on Marilyn Mosby?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, for reporters who have been covering, you know, police use of force cases, particularly when people died in police custody, she completely changed the whole narrative, the whole game on this; or the whole way these cases were processed.
Usually, they do a sort of delay, where they say, “It’s going to take years; it’s going to take months. We’re going to investigate this for — it’s going to take six, seven, eight, ten months.” And I think part of the strategy was just to, you know — in cases like Anthony Anderson who died in police custody, cases like Tyrone West who died in police custody — was just delay for as long as possible.
Well, in two weeks she indicted six officers; and that, forever has changed how people view police use of force investigations. She also did it without the Police Department, on her own — another sort of groundbreaking, whether you agree with it or not — absolutely groundbreaking approach.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the one thing she couldn’t discuss with us was Freddie Gray. Why?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, because currently there is a very unusual lawsuit moving its way through the Federal Courts — that is suing her for malicious prosecution — and that a Federal Judge has allowed to go forward. So, basically the entire prosecution of these officers is now under, you know, a Federal civil case, in which they’re trying to, you know, get Mosby for damages, which is very unusual.
Rarely do judges allow these to proceed. I mean, most prosecutors have a certain amount of discretion. So, it’s a very unusual case but because of that, she’s pretty much… cannot discuss her feelings about the Freddie Gray case or the prosecution at this point.
TAYA GRAHAM: My first question for you, is was there a specific person, or event, that influenced your decision to run for City State’s Attorney?
MARILYN MOSBY: Yeah, there was actually. When I was about 14 years old, I grew up in a household of police officers. I come from five generations of police officers — my great, great uncle, my great, great grandfather, and my grandfather. And we grew up in a very small, close-knit community and I lived right next door to my cousin. We grew up like brother and sister. We lived right across the street from my grandparents.
And when I was about 14 years old, my cousin who grew up with me like a brother, he was killed right outside of our home in broad daylight, when he was mistaken as a neighborhood drug dealer. If it wasn’t for the testimony of a neighbor who cooperated with police to testify in court, my family wouldn’t have received any sort of justice. But this was — at 14 years old — my first introduction to the criminal justice system. Having to go into court and seeing my cousin with all these dreams, all these aspirations, now going to a grave.
But what was perplexing to me at that age was, the individual accused of my cousin’s death was also 17 years old. And I wondered how we could have gotten to this young man before he elected to take my cousin’s life. And it was confusing to me at that age, as to why the community was so complacent with seeing yet another black male who was just killed, dead in the street, and all these dreams, all these aspirations away.
And so, I guess it was that experience, having to go into the courtrooms, seeing the number of African-Americans that were going in and out of the court system; and saying, what is this system? Why is this system disproportionately affecting so many of us? Why are we so complacent with this?
And so, that’s what kind of — that tragedy — espoused my passion to change the criminal justice system. And I utilized that experience to do so.
TAYA GRAHAM: Law enforcement is dominated by men. What sort of challenges have you faced as a woman, and particularly, as a woman of color in the City State’s Attorney’s office?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, I think my life experiences have prepared me to be the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. I can remember, even before I decided I was going to run for State’s Attorney, I went to a women’s conference and it just occurred to me, you know, they say women suffer… behavioral scientists say that women suffer from a confidence gap. We take risks, we run for office, when we meet all of the requisite criteria, while men on the other hand, they do these same things. They apply for promotions; they run for office when they meet only half.
And it was at that conference that I asked myself, if not me then who; and if not now, then when? You know, I was a prosecutor for more than six years. This is my heart. This is my passion. I’ve worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, in D.C., the Suffolk County Homicide Unit, served as a criminal defense attorney, as a student for more than a year. And I knew that I was impassioned about changing my community.
And so, when everybody told me, even in the beginning, that I was too young; I was too inexperienced; and I couldn’t raise enough money; that me potentially running for this position would not only interrupt, but potentially destroy my husband’s political career — I had to kind of figure out a way to channel my confidence, and be able to say that, despite what the naysayers say, I have the ability, and the power, to realize my potential and to actually reform the criminal justice system.
And so, when I beat the incumbent, by double digit percentage points, I can remember the media right away saying that the only reason why I won States Attorney, was because I was a black woman in a majority black city. And it wasn’t until we released my campaign release numbers that showed that I had, you know, broad support from low income, high income, white, black, you know various socio-economic status from people, all sorts of demographics, all across the city. But that kind of dialogue died, right?
So, I was pretty much prepared even before I took this role. I think that once I became the States Attorney, seeing the misogynistic and sort of, implicit bias that the media has; racial bias that they have towards women of color — has been somewhat of a surprise to me. I can tell you I can remember when, it was probably the first year that I was in office, and I’ve only been in office for two years — it feels like 22 years — there was an article that accused me of derailing the entire Homicide Commission, and it was an issue that not only I disagreed with, but also the current Police Commissioner.
And I can recall there being several articles and editorials entitled, “Play Nice, Miss Mosby”. They referred to me as being scornful. So, you know, those were some of the misogynistic, sort of, undertones that you hear.
TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh, very.
MARILYN MOSBY: Being criticized and scrutinized, the way that we have, despite some of the successes in the office. But I really try not to get distracted by that, and I try to, you know, stay focused because we’ve made a number of accomplishments in the States Attorney’s office. We prosecute over 50,000 cases a year, and despite prosecuting 50,000 cases a year, from 2014 to 2015 my homicide prosecutors had an almost 20% increase in the number of cases that they handle.
And even despite that, they had an almost 80% conviction rate. Last year, you know, we prosecuted over 5,000 felonies a year. My felony prosecutor conviction rates were more than 93%. You know, my special victims unit was — you know, these are the cases that deal with child abuse and sexual assault — we had a 97% conviction rate, since we’ve been in office. I’ve been in office for two years; we’ve increased the grant funding more than 27%. Just two months ago we were awarded a $2.4 million Federal grant to better protect victims and witnesses, for our victim and witness unit.
So, I try not to get distracted by, you know, the naysayers, or for lack of a better term, the haters, and to stay focused on what needs to be done and to move our city forward.
TAYA GRAHAM: It’s my understanding that you have advocated a two-pronged approach to your job: one, targeting the most violent offenders; but two, trying to lessen the burden of the criminal justice system for low level offenders, and communities of color. How do you reconcile both?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, I think it’s really important for us to be able to address those systemic issues as to why crimes take place. And if we don’t, we will continue to see the surge in violence that we’ve seen in Baltimore City. When we consider the fact that, you know, we see the atrocious violence that’s happening, right, the number of murders, the number of robberies. As of Monday, there were over 920 robberies just this year, and we’re in March. You know, only 157 of those have been even solved.
If we don’t address those systemic issues, this will continue to happen. What does that mean? Well, 24% of Baltimore’s population is living in poverty, and 35% of children are living below poverty. And so, what we need to do is to holistically attack that problem. And so, that’s what we’ve brought and that’s what I’ve brought in this administration, is a holistic approach to prosecution. We’ve been tough on crime and we’ve seen the negative results of that — mass incarceration. It’s time for us to be smart on crime.
So, what does mean? That means that we’re creating programs; I am going to be tough on crime when it comes to violent repeat offenders. The small number of individuals that are responsible for the majority of crime in the City of Baltimore — those individuals, with no code of ethics, killing women and killing children — I’m going to be tough. And I’ve proven that, you know, from the number of convictions that we’ve been able to obtain.
But we also have to be smart. What does that mean? That means that we have to take that holistic approach. We’ve created a crime control and prevention division in the States Attorney’s Office, where we started a program called, “Aim to be More,” for first time non-violent felony drug offenders. This program is modelled after the, “Back on Track” program from California, Kamala Harris’s, “Back on Track” program, when she was San Francisco’s District Attorney.
And what we need to understand is that, when these young people get these felony convictions, what ends up happening, right — they can no longer apply for a job. They can no longer apply for housing. They can’t go back to school, because they can’t get any financial aid. And so, what other recourse do they have, but to go out doing what they were doing in the first place?
Well, that presents a public safety concern for me. And so this program is, again it’s called, “Aim to be More” We launched this program two years ago in the height of the unrest. It’s for first time non-violent felony drug offenders. They go through a probationary period where they learn life skills; they learn job-training skills; they do community service, and at the end of that probationary period, they’re given a job, and their felony records are wiped clean.
Those are the sorts of programs that are needed to be able to address those systemic issues. And I’m really excited about it, because we’ve partnered with other agencies that are already in existence, like, “Living Classrooms,” and, “Center for Urban Families,” and the “Strive” program; you know, Catholic charities, Bon Secours — and so far, we’ve had, you know, phenomenal results.
We have some individuals who have gone from being homeless, to now having two jobs. You know, some young people — and we serve a population between typically, 18 to 24 — who their entire life they’ve gone through the criminal justice system; their families have gone through the criminal justice system; and some of those young people, not only have jobs, but they’re now enrolled in BCC.
So, it makes a difference. And so, that’s what we’re attempting to do, and hopefully we’ll be able to expand that as well.
TAYA GRAHAM: What has been the biggest surprise you’ve encountered, regarding the criminal justice system, from the perspective of being the City’s top prosecutor?
MARILYN MOSBY: I think the biggest sort of surprise has been the overall resistance for change. And you know, I was always critiqued as being, sort of inexperienced, and I would say I am inexperienced because I don’t buy into the status quo. I’m inexperienced in that we can’t allow the status quo to define the way in which we function in this city.
And so, I will challenge that as much as I can; and I guess from a systemic sort of perspective, the resistance to understanding that when you apply accountability fairly and equally, despite occupation, that leads to exposure, right? We had The Department of Justice report, that exposure lead to what? Reform, right — we now have a Consent Decree.
And so, I went into this job wanting to reform the criminal justice system. I can say that we successfully did that in 18 months.
TAYA GRAHAM: I know your family has been involved in law enforcement for several generations. How has their experience informed your view of law enforcement, particularly regarding discrimination?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, what I can say about my family, my grandfather was the ideal. He epitomized community policing. He was one of the founding members of the first black police organization in Massachusetts. They referred to my house… As I said, we grew up in a very close-knit sort of community, I lived right across the street from my grandparents, and at one point when I was younger, I lived with them. But they referred to our house as the ‘police house’, right?
My grandfather, at the time, I didn’t completely understand why he would take, you know, people from the community, young kids from the community, and he was like this paternalistic sort of figure. So, I would come home and people would say, “Hey Marilyn. How are you? Hey sis,” and I’m like, “Who are you? And why are you here?” Right? But I… in retrospect, what my grandfather meant to the community was so much greater than just my perspective of my grandfather, right? It was more than just beyond our family. It was beyond our family. He was a paternalistic figure to the community.
And so, being a police officer, he had that respect, that the community would come forward, they would come and they would borrow money, they would come to him for advice. That’s what we kind of should be looking for when it comes to policing. You know, people who uphold that authority in ways in which they understand that they’re sworn to protect and to serve. But they also — people are looking to them to emulate them.
And so, you know, I learned a great deal from my family; and a great deal of compassion. But I also understood, you know, from the hard work that my family put in, each and every day, the sacrifice that it took being a police officer. You know, you take time away from your family. You are actually risking your lives to better your community. So, that is something that was ingrained in me, and something that I find near and dear, and something that I value.
So, when you have individuals who abuse that authority, it’s something in which is offensive, because it does a disservice to those hardworking police officers that risk their lives each and every day.
TAYA GRAHAM: Officers like Sgt. Hobson, have said there’s discrimination within the Police Department. And he won a landmark civil rights case because of this. Why are black officers treated differently in Baltimore?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, what I can tell you is that I can’t say one way or another whether black officers are treated differently, what I can tell you, is from my own experience, you know, being an African-American woman in a law enforcement position, you know, my experiences helped shape who I am. It’s no surprise to me when we have the Department of Justice Report that there were discriminatory policing practices in the Police Department. I live in the heart of West Baltimore. You know my grandfather living in the inner city of Boston, although he wore blue, his skin was still black.
And so, is it surprising that there would be discrimination? I would say no. But you utilize that experience to better you, or to make a difference for you and your community. And I think that’s what we need more of. We need more folks who are applying to become police officers. If you want to talk about, you know, not necessarily… Well, I’ll use Baltimore as an example, 85% of the officers in Baltimore City don’t live in the City.
That, in and of itself, is a problem. You want people who are of the community, who understand the needs of that community, and who can have empathy for that community; and engage in that community in ways in which, if you’re not from Baltimore City, and you don’t understand, then it’s difficult to kind of — to relate.
TAYA GRAHAM: Recently, seven officers in a gun task force were indicted federally. How will their charges impact your office and pending cases? And have you had any time to assess the damage?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, I mean, those seven officers that were federally indicted, it’s definitely going to have a pervasive sort of impact on cases in my office. I can tell you that, you know, we’re currently in the process of assessing those cases as we speak. Unfortunately, these were officers that were tasked with getting some of the most violent repeat offenders off the streets.
So, this is an analysis that’s going to have to take place that is not something that we can just do in sort of rush. We have to look at those cases — case by case — to see if it relies on something other than the credibility of those officers. If we have corroborative evidence that would allow us to proceed on some of these cases, then we will do that. If it depends exclusively on the credibility of these officers, we have no choice but to get rid of those cases.
TAYA GRAHAM: You’ve talked about the inherent bias of the criminal justice system. What prompted you to say that? And how do you feel now?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, I mean, what I can tell you is my own sort of experience, right? When we look at the number of individuals that are incarcerated for non-violent felony drug offences, you know, it’s disproportionate — African-Americans — the numbers are disproportionate to any other sort of ethnicity and race in this country.
That’s not something that, you know, is rocket science. I can also tell you from my experience having to live in the heart of West Baltimore; having been a survivor of homicide; you know, this has a disproportionate impact. The question is, you know, what are we doing about it?
TAYA GRAHAM: Your actions as a new States Attorney were criticized. How much do you feel that had to do with being a woman — and particularly, a black woman?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, what I’ve learned since I’ve been States Attorney, and it was something that I had to develop very quickly, was to develop thick skin, right? What I completely understand is that you cannot internalize the criticism, and the critique, and the implicit bias, and the misogynistic, sort of undertones of the media, or whoever else. You cannot, because I cannot allow that to distract me.
When I consider the fact that 95% of the prosecutors in this country are white; 79% are white men; and as a woman of color, I represent 1% of all elected prosecutors in the country — then you learn how not to take it personally, or to internalize it, and to understand that those attacks are rather upon what you represent. It’s also something that keeps me grounded, understanding what I represent.
It was actually right after my election when I won the primary election, a little eight-year-old girl — I was in the community — a little eight-year-old girl walked up to me and said, “Marilyn Mosby, I voted for you.” And I looked at this little baby who clearly could not vote, but somebody had explained the importance of that fundamental right. And what was more important to me in that moment was that this little girl could see herself in me. And so that was far more important.
So, the attacks, you know, I understand it’s what I represent, but also being in this position, it’s what I represent to those little girls all across this city.
TAYA GRAHAM: Where do you want to be five years from now? And where do you see Baltimore five years from now?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, for me, personally there is no end game. I feel like, you know, I want to be in this position, and I want to make a difference. And so, what does that mean? I think Baltimore as it is, is at a very unique sort of time in our history, and we have a unique opportunity to be an example for other cities all across this country.
We have an opportunity to really push criminal justice reform, and police accountability reform, and I’m just hopeful. I’m optimistic that we’re going to get it right. And I want to be right here at the helm in making sure that we do.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is my second to last question. And that is, what advice do you have for young girls right now in Baltimore City?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, what I like to say to young women is that every great dream begins with a dreamer who understands their strength, their patience, their passion to reach for the stars and change the world. That’s Harriet Tubman, right?
But no matter what your circumstances, or your life experience, every great movement towards progress in the country began with warrior women — warrior women who are unafraid to challenge the status quo, and the pursuit of justice; warrior women who never let any time, situation or circumstance to find their destiny.
Only you and God can do that. And so, I would encourage young women to channel their confidence and never allow the naysayers or the haters to define who they are.
TAYA GRAHAM: Did you get to meet Prince? And if so, what was he like?
MARILYN MOSBY: So, what I can say about the whole Prince issue, right, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity; and I met him. He called me on the stage and I got to meet him only on the stage. I didn’t get to meet him before. And this is a sort of experience that I will value for the remainder of my life.
He essentially walked over to me, and said, “Come with me.” And he’s Prince, so what do you do? You’re like, “Okay.” So, I get up; I’m like, “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.” And he says, “Wave to the crowd.” And so, I said, “Okay,” waved to the crowd.
And that was my extent of, you know, our engagement and interaction. But I was… it’s something that, especially now that he’s passed, that I will value forever.